Never Again

Life and death at 15,000 feet

December 1, 2011

Never again

Losing important pieces of an airplane, while flying, can be fatal. But you know that. Many people, including some pilots, think of gliders, or sailplanes, as toys. Far from it. They are among the world's most advanced, high-performance aircraft. Beyond their performance, they are insanely beautiful, shaped by the wind. Sailplane pilots like to think of them as highly advanced airplanes that lack only that noisy fire hazard.

I preflighted my H301 Libelle sailplane at Minden Airport in Nevada, just east of California’s Lake Tahoe, carefully: stainless-steel wing pin inserted and locked, tailplane secure, controls and instruments checked, maps in place, radio function confirmed, oxygen bottle at full pressure, all wing-to-fuselage and tailplane-to-fuselage joints taped to minimize drag, weather predictions verified, a gallon of drinking water stowed and drinking tube available, energy bars on hand for my anticipated five- to six-hour, 350-mile flight. I’m ready for aerotow, pulled aloft by a Cessna 182.

Never Again

Listen to this month's "Never Again" story: Life and death at 15,000 feet. Download the mp3 file or download the iTunes podcast.

Never Again Online

Hear this and other original " Never Again" stories as podcasts and download free audio files from our library.

This H-301B Libelle (“Dragonfly”) 50-foot-wingspan glider, renowned as the world’s first all-fiberglass sailplane, is a racer that can fly at 125 knots and more, up to 50,000 feet (the highest I have flown it is 35,000 feet), with a 43:1 glide ratio (i.e., from a mile or 5,280 feet high, I can theoretically fly 43 miles in “still air,” although air is rarely still).

I plan to fly down the magnificent Sierra to the Mojave Desert at California City, and back. The weather is cooperating and will enable this flight.

Soaring pilots depend on weather. We need lift: thermals (warm air rising from the ground), wave (fast-moving air lifted behind mountains, like water behind rocks in a stream), ridge (wind deflected upward against a mountain), or convergence—colliding air masses, like those between marine air and inland air. A sailplane is always falling relative to the air and can only be kept aloft by the pilot understanding and using rising air. This demands close attention and endless practice.

I strap in securely. My crew pulls the bird to the line to hook up to the towplane and takes the wing tip in hand—with the Libelle’s single central wheel, she will “run” the wing tip as we accelerate, until air flows over the wings and the controls gain authority.

The final, essential act: attach the 35-pound, four-foot-long clear plexiglass canopy by inserting a pin in its rear frame into a fuselage receptacle, out of sight and reach behind me—the canopy is integral to the sailplane’s shape, essential to safe flight. A volunteer managing the tows, an experienced sailplane pilot, does this. He assures me that the pin is inserted securely, so I close the front of the canopy to engage the emergency release, a red knob above the instrument panel, and lock it. Towline hooked up, I waggle the rudder, a signal the tow pilot can see through his mirror, that I am ready.

The launch and tow are normal, at 65 knots. I retract the landing gear after takeoff. I find a convenient thermal, a rising column of warm air that lofts me to 15,000 feet, on oxygen, circling at 42 knots, climbing at 1,000 feet per minute. I tell my crew by radio, audible to everyone on the ground, that soaring conditions are excellent. I chandelle off the top of the thermal and push the stick forward, looking for 120 knots, and head south, nose pointed down in a steep dive.

Then the canopy detaches suddenly, explosively, violent as a gunshot. There’s a stunning rush of air. The rear pin was not engaged. Everything loose is gone instantly. My oxygen mask is torn away; my shades, sun hat, and charts vanish. My tube mic, clipped to my shades? Nowhere. But the radio is useless in the 140-mph wind blast. I have a full-on emergency.

Analyze, decide, act. Split seconds count. Did the canopy hit the tail, meaning severe damage and likely loss of control? Should I bail out? I check the controls in roll, pitch, and yaw. They seem functional. Are they damaged? Pulling back on the stick, slowing, I find control marginal below 60 knots, too fast for a normal, safe approach. But I must land safely, somehow. Fortunately, I am within gliding range of Minden airport.

Minden’s Runway 30 is choc-a-block with sailplanes awaiting launch. I am virtually invisible, not expected to be landing back. I lower the gear and choose unused Runway 21, X’ed out as unusable—weeds, broken concrete, plus a severe crosswind. I must land fast to retain control, and roll through the runway intersection in the center of the airport. A towplane is parked next to the intersection, in the center of Runway 21, and there is no room to get by. I cannot communicate with him. Seconds before I steer into the sagebrush along the runway to avoid a collision, destroying the aircraft and probably myself in an uncontrollable cartwheel, he taxies away for his next tow as I touch down at 60 knots.

I roll through the intersection at 40 knots (almost 50 mph), into the closed Runway 3 area where gliders rig and vehicles park. By some extraordinary lull between tows, nothing is in the way. Gliders, tow vehicles, and trailers, usually scattered across the parking area, are mercifully, miraculously absent.

I apply the brake and stop: The wing tip touches the ground. I exhale slowly.

A pilot standing nearby comes over. He looks perplexed: “Where’s your canopy?”

Good question.

My crew, at the wing tip 25 feet away, had noticed that something seemed not quite right about the canopy placement but she deferred to the more experienced pilot and had said nothing. The lesson for me is that all eyes and observations are worth attention. If it doesn’t look right, chances are it’s not right. As pilots, we occasionally become complacent and assume things an untrained person notices. In this case, the eyes in the back of my head could not perform the task since they were AWOL.

John Joss, a San Francisco writer, learned to fly in the Royal Navy and flies sailplanes in the Sierra Nevada.

Topics Avionics